20 Houston Community College

Nathan Smith


Type of Institution: Community college

Impetus: Expansion of open educational resources (OER) usage across campus; Texas House Bill 810

Student Information System: PeopleSoft

Markings Used: Textbook Savings (attribute); Low-Cost (L), Zero-Cost (Z), Inclusive Access(S) (designations [icons]); LCB, ZCB, and Z-Degree (tags)

Unique Features: Preliminary assessment using a survey


Houston Community College (HCC) is an open-admission public institution, awarding associate degrees and certificates in academic studies and career and technology programs. Established in 1971, HCC serves students throughout the Houston area, Harris County, and Fort Bend County with 24 campuses in addition to many dual-credit instructional programs in local high schools. HCC students are ethnically diverse with a median age of 34 years. More than 100,000 individual students attend HCC each year, the majority of whom are part-time. HCC has the highest enrollment of international students of all two-year institutions in the nation.

HCC faculty and staff have been using and promoting open educational resources (OER) since the late 2000s. Despite early grassroots efforts, the college lacked a comprehensive plan to encourage OER adoption until 2015. In the summer of 2015, the vice-chancellor of instructional services (chief academic officer) created an OER capstone project, led by two academic deans, the dean of English and Communications and the dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences, as well as the associate vice-chancellor of academic instruction. This group began to explore a number of projects to unify and expand the use of OER on campus. The team identified a central goal to develop an open and affordable textbook course tagging process in the student information system, which, for HCC, is PeopleSoft.

At the time, HCC was inspired by the success of the Maricopa Millions project (Maricopa Community Colleges 2020). In the Summer of 2017, HCC piloted a Low Cost Books (LCB) course tag, targeting sections that required students to purchase materials costing a total of no more than $40 per section, per semester. The committee worked with the information technology (IT) department to develop the required technical infrastructure and select departments were encouraged to use the tag in Summer 2017.

In early 2017, the Texas legislature passed SB 810, which mandated OER course tagging for all Texas state schools. With the LCB course tag, HCC felt it was on its way to meeting that goal. In Fall 2017, HCC launched a zero-cost degree, or Z-Degree, program. The original capstone committee on OER dissolved and many of its members formed an OER steering committee, which became a key component supporting the Z-Degree program. As a result, we received early feedback on the usefulness and feasibility of the process. This case study provides a historical account of that process, current reflections, and future plans.

Goals and Rationale

When HCC initially considered open and affordable course tagging, we were led by two primary objectives: (1) to promote greater use of OER and other affordable course materials and (2) to signal to students which classes in the schedule offered OER materials. Since that time, additional priorities have emerged: (3) to ensure that OER and affordable  courses can be easily tracked and data requests can be easily filled and (4) to encourage departments and faculty to report OER adoptions.

Our primary objective for tagging courses was to promote the use and visibility of open and affordable instructional materials among faculty and students. There is a tight relationship between student interests and faculty incentives, especially at a community college. In particular, hiring decisions, program vitality, scheduling, and staffing all revolve around student enrollment. This is not only because tuition revenue is an important part of funding the college (at HCC, tuition represents about one-third of total revenue), but also because HCC emphasizes service to the community as a core component of its mission. The Z-Degree has been a flagship program in the promotion of OER, and promotional events as well as professional development centered on open education, open pedagogy, and OER have emerged as essential components of the initiative. Course tagging is a critical part of this larger mission to promote the adoption, use, and creation of OER.

Students are highly sensitive to textbook costs. HCC’s Instructional Materials Council performs an annual survey of students’ views on instructional materials. The Spring 2018 survey represents a convenience sample of 1,987 students (4.15% of possible respondents). Requests are sent through email over a two-week period with two reminders. One series of questions asks students about their preferences regarding “traditional, printed textbooks” as compared with “online (or digital) textbooks.” When asked for their preferences, 48.1% of respondents agree or strongly agree with the statement, “I prefer traditional, printed textbooks to online instructional materials.” However, those preferences shift noticeably when presented with changes in cost: 61.1% either agree or strongly agree with the statement, “I would prefer an online (or digital) textbook if it were cheaper than a print textbook”; 66.7% either agree or strongly agree with the statement, “I would prefer an online (or digital) textbook if it were significantly cheaper than a print textbook”; and 80.1% agree or strongly agree with the statement “I would prefer an online (or digital) textbook if it were free”; 59% of this group strongly agree.

These data show that most students are willing to sacrifice their preference for print instructional materials in exchange for a lower cost alternative. Consequently, HCC focused on attracting student interest based on cost rather than material type. The term “OER” is fairly obscure, even for most faculty. Seaman and Seaman (2017) report that 56% of faculty are unaware of OER. Faculty, however, may achieve a low-cost threshold without using OER, reinforcing our view that material type was less important than cost. Moreover, committing to an OER tag would require a course review process for each course using the tag to ensure that the materials are, in fact, openly licensed. At an institution the size of HCC, that would require significant resources. With our focus on clear and consistent communication, we elected not to tag courses as OER, but as Low Cost Books (LCB), defined as $40 or less for all required instructional materials. Later, we added a Zero Cost Books (ZCB) tag, defined as cost free to the student for required instructional materials. Sections tagged with LCB or ZCB may use OER—most LCB and close to all ZCB classes do in fact use at least some OER—along with other free or low-cost materials.

Once courses are tagged in the SIS, it is easy to pull data on those courses. As OER coordinator, I regularly review the schedule of tagged courses. This is critical for ensuring that Z-Degree classes are scheduled at the days, times, and locations that best serve students, and I can also audit which instructors are scheduled for these courses. Moreover, I regularly assess the enrollment of these courses for tracking and reporting purposes. And finally, I work closely with the Office of Institutional Research to track a number of key metrics to evaluate the ongoing success of the program, including student enrollment data (how many open and affordable courses students are taking), student success data (grades and withdrawals), and student persistence data (whether students continue to take free and affordable courses at HCC). Without a searchable course tag in the SIS, those data requests would be prohibitively difficult to fulfill.

Free and affordable course tagging at HCC requires faculty to report their use of open and affordable course materials to their department chairs. While this process continues to introduce challenges for implementation, it ultimately will ensure that tracking and reporting the use of free, open, and affordable materials becomes part of the regular textbook ordering practice. Anecdotally, I have heard of faculty who perceive the use of free and open materials as a way to “fly under the radar” or evade departmental or program-level guidelines on instructional materials. By requiring faculty to report their use of free, open, and affordable materials to their department chair in order to receive the benefit of clear recognition and discovery by students, the course tagging program promotes accountability and rigor in the department while reducing the cost barrier to students.

Phases of Implementation

HCC passed through a series of phases while implementing course tagging. Each phase was initiated by changing concerns in the OER program and a desire to improve tracking and communication with students. The phases were implemented over a period of two years (see fig. 20.1). The OER Steering Committee, Instructional Materials Council, and other members of the faculty and administration, participated in decision-making at each stage. The effort was led by the OER coordinator, working with the manager of applications development in IT and the  associate vice-chancellor of academic instruction. HCC has a software development team in IT that helped design and execute changes to the PeopleSoft system. The fields used in course tagging already existed and were repurposed for use in this project. Once the development was complete, IT created a job aid describing how to tag courses and search for courses. The associate vice-chancellor’s office circulated job aids with notices to deans, chairs, and their assistants. Additionally, he discussed plans and changes with the deans council, and I, as OER coordinator, presented the new process to the entire faculty at the August all-faculty Instructional Day meeting in 2018. I work with advisers and enrollment officers to push the word out to those who help students in registration.

A transition explaining the adoption of Zero-cost-books from low-cost and z-degrees over different term periods
Figure 20.1: A transition of Low-Cost-Books, Zero-Cost-Books and Z-Degrees over different term periods. Circles are conceptual groupings. They do not represent the relative size of course tags. LCB — Low Cost Books, ZCB — Zero Cost Books, ZDG — Z-Degree, SFD — First Day/Inclusive Access

Low Cost Books

The first stage of course tagging was based on the idea of identifying courses with materials costs less than $40. HCC defines cost in terms of the total cost of purchasing required materials new from the HCC bookstore. We focused on the cost of new instructional materials purchased at the HCC bookstore for three reasons: (1) this is the only price that can be readily and consistently audited; (2) if the book is required, one cannot assume that students will be able to obtain a cheaper copy; and (3) over 65% of HCC students rely on financial aid to purchase instructional materials and financial aid only be used at the HCC bookstore. Ancillary supplies required for certain programs, such as  art supplies, welding gloves, or scrubs, may exceed $40 and are, therefore, not included in determining which courses are designated “Low Cost Books” (LCB).

In Summer 2017, three departments, English, World Languages, and Philosophy, Humanities, & Library Sciences, piloted course tagging. These departments tagged 49 sections. Department chairs and deans were responsible for tagging LCB courses when staffing. Chairs and deans have since been encouraged to staff courses prior to the beginning of student registration so that students gain the benefit of searching and registering for classes based on course tagging. Classes determined to be LCB are tagged in HCC’s PeopleSoft SIS.

Tagging is done on  the “Maintain Schedule of Classes” page of the SIS under “Curriculum Management.” Once a particular class section has been selected, the course is tagged in two places: in the Class Attributes field (fig. 20.2) and under the Textbooks tab (fig. 20.3).

The "Class Attributes" table includes a list of common course attributes. In this example, a course is tagged with "010" "Communication (I)" and "LCB" "Low Cost Books." The Low Cost Books attribute is highlighted.
Figure 20.2: Class attribute and value fields for Low Cost Books
The Textbook tab appears as one of eight tabs on the screen. Once selected, there is a table at the bottom, labeled "Textbook Assignment." In this table, "Low Cost Books" is selected from a drop-down menu under "Course Materials." Below that selection, a description is provided under "Special Instructions" that reads, "The total cost for texts in this course will be $40 or less. Internet access may be required. Other instructional materials may not be included.
Figure 20.3:  Class sections and textbook assignments under Textbook tab. Low Cost Books is entered as Course Material Type. A definition of LCB is returned in the Special Instructions note visible to students in the class schedule.

Both fields are necessary because each serves a different function in the system. The Class Attributes field enables the search filter function and allows courses to have a visible marker in the class schedule. The Textbooks field provides a written description of the tag for students when they look at the detailed description of the class they are interested in. Each of these fields also serves different functions when accessing data on tagged courses.

Though functional, the Class Attributes field in the PeopleSoft SIS, has a significant drawback. Class Attribute tags roll over from previous semesters. If  course schedules are designed using a rollover from the previous year, forthcoming courses will retain the open and affordable Class Attribute tags though course resources may no longer qualify as LCB. Our development team has to remove all affordable textbook tags from the rollover each semester. We are looking for ways to avoid this in the future.

In the first phase, when students searched the class schedule, they could identify Low Cost Books sections by the prominent green check mark next to the class description (see fig. 20.4).

The search screen provides a list of classes that meet search criteria. In this example, there are 21 class sections that fit the search criteria. The section presented includes eight sections of ENGL 1301 "Composition I." Each section has a Class number, a Section description, Days & Times, Room, Instructor, Meeting Dates, Status, and Low Cost Books. Under the Low Cost Books column, one course has a green check mark.
Figure 20.4: All available English sections shown, with green check mark in Low Cost Book column

If a student hovered over the green check mark, a dialogue box would have appeared:

The total cost for texts in this course will be $40 or less. Internet access may be required. Other instructional materials may not be included.

This description also appeared under the course details page in the Textbooks section of the course description.


When HCC launched its Z-Degree program in Fall 2017, the OER Committee created a ZDG course tag to identify classes as part of the Z-Degree. We decided against including this tag in the public search function, however; the general consensus of the committee was that too many search options would confuse students.

Nevertheless, the ZDG tag serves an important administrative function. Z-Degree classes at HCC are specifically assigned in a structured schedule, on a particular campus, and aligned with a degree pathway. Z-Degree schedules are assigned during the day, Monday through Thursday. While we allow exceptions, it is difficult to arrange sequential times for classes offered at different term lengths because the meeting times for those classes do not align. Consequently, not every zero cost books (ZCB) course can be in the Z-Degree. Many instructors that use free materials and OER choose to teach in the evenings, in shortened session lengths, or on Friday or Saturday.

For Z-Degree classes, department chairs were initially instructed to tag those classes as both LCB and ZDG. Classes were tagged as ZDG in the same fields as LCB—in the Class Attributes (see fig. 20.5) and Textbooks (see fig. 20.6) sections of Curriculum Management in PeopleSoft.

This table presents the "Class Attributes" section of course scheduling in PeopleSoft. This course has three course attributes: "010" "Communications (I)", "ZDG" "Z-Degree Program", and "ZCB" "Zero-Cost Books."
Figure 20.5: Class Attributes for Z-Degree Program (ZDG) and Zero Cost Books (ZCB)
This table presents the "Course Materials" section under the Textbooks tab. The table is empty, but a drop-down menu is activated, presenting three options: Low Cost Books, Z-Degree and Zero Cost Books.
Figure 20.6: Drop-down menu for Low Cost Books, Z-Degree and Zero Cost Books under Course Materials

Zero Cost Books

As use of free resources expanded beyond the Z-Degree, we needed to differentiate Low Cost Books classes from classes with no textbook costs. As a result, we added a third course tag, Zero Cost Books (ZCB). In turn, we began classifying Z-Degree classes as ZCB, not LCB. HCC conceives of Z-Degree classes as a subset of the total number of ZCB classes, and we encourage chairs and faculty to continue to use the LCB course tag for courses that required the purchase of some instructional materials and to reserve the ZCB tag for Z-Degree classes or classes where there is no expected charge for instructional materials. LCB and ZCB courses should be tagged with the appropriate cost savings tag whether they are in the Z-Degree or not.

For students, we changed the class search field to indicate the two options. If a student selected the Low Cost Books/Zero Cost Books filter (see fig. 20.7), they would see the classes that had been tagged as either LCB or ZCB (see fig. 20.8).

The Course Attributes selection under the search menu. A drop-down menu is activated, presenting one option: Low Cost Books/Zero Cost Books.
Figure 20.7: Low Cost Books/Zero Cost Books filtered for students under Course Attribute
The search results for English 1301. At the very top, there are two boxes, labeled "my class schedule" and "shopping cart." The search criteria are highlighted with a red box that has been added for visibility. Then there are two buttons, "New Search" and "Modify Search." Finally, there is a table with the search results, presenting 5 class sections with identifying information for the class: Section, Days & Times, Room, Instructor, Meeting Dates, Class Co-Requisite, Status, LCB/ZCB, and a final column with a button that says "Select." Two sections have a green checkmark under LCB/ZCB. These sections are highlighted with a red arrow
Figure 20.8: Search result for different English Course available

Somewhat clumsily, we lumped Low Cost Books and Zero Cost Books into the same search (see fig. 20.8) and identified them with the same marker. A green check mark indicated LCB/ZCB courses. If a student hovered their cursor over the green check mark, a description and further instructions would be displayed (see fig. 20.9). Students had to navigate to the course section details page to differentiate which type of section they were looking at. This solution for messaging to students was not ideal and, fortunately, would change in the next phase of implementation.

Displays a dialog box above a green check-mark, indicating an LCB/ZCB class. The box reads "Low Cost Book/Zero Cost Book: Total cost for required texts in a Low Cost Book course will be $40 or less. Total cost for required texts in a Zero Cost Book course will be $0. Check course section details for more information. Internet access may be required, Other instructional materials may not be included."
Figure 20.9: Low Cost Book/Zero Cost Book description displays when cursor hovers over the green check mark

Progress, however, was being made. In the Fall 2018 schedule, faculty and chairs started using the ZCB course tag, alongside the LCB and ZDG course tags.

Fee-based OER courseware platforms complicate the picture for Z-Degree programs. Platforms built around OER content—which may technically be free—are widely used by faculty, but because these platforms charge students a fee, they are classified as LCB, not ZCB courses. For classes using OER courseware platforms in the Z-Degree, HCC has been able to subsidize student access to those classes through a grant fund.

Textbook Savings

In Summer and Fall 2018, HCC worked with the HCC-Barnes & Noble College Bookstore to provide an Inclusive Access option for students (called “First Day” by B&N College), as another option to provide affordable textbooks for students. From a purely technical perspective, it made sense to use the same procedure that had already been developed for LCB and ZCB tagging to tag courses for this new initiative. However, we also recognized the importance of differentiating Inclusive Access from OER. Whereas, these programs are often associated under the umbrella of “textbook affordability,” there are serious concerns that Inclusive Access, an initiative championed by textbook publishers, does not align with the values and motives behind open education. In particular, the savings offered by publishers are much less than savings provided through the use of OER and other free materials. For example, no Inclusive Access courses currently offered at HCC fit in the Low Cost Books category. Additionally, Inclusive Access materials remain copyrighted and unavailable for remixing, revising, redistributing, or even retaining by students and faculty. Nonetheless, since HCC had already committed to a course tagging process that emphasized cost, including Inclusive Access in the Textbook Savings filter was a natural step.

This new tagging procedure launched at the end of October 2018 for Spring 2019 registration. This implementation enables students to filter searches by Textbook Savings under the Course Attribute filter (see fig. 20.10). The combined Low Cost Books/Zero Cost Books designation has been removed.

Presents the "Course Attributes" section of the search menu. A drop-down menu is highlighted, presenting one option: Textbook Savings.
Figure 20.10: Option to select Textbook Savings under Course Attribute

As before, a filtered search by Textbook Savings will yield only classes that have been tagged as LCB, ZCB, or Inclusive Access. In the course schedule, under the column labeled Textbook Savings (see fig. 20.11), classes are designated with an orange letter icon for each savings type: Low Cost (L), Zero Cost (Z), or Inclusive Access (S). Hovering over the icon, students receive a different message balloon depending on the type of class (see figs. 20.12-14).

Presents the search results for Sociology 1301. At the very top, there are two boxes, labeled "my class schedule" and "shopping cart." The search criteria are below that. Then there are two buttons, "New Search" and "Modify Search." Finally, there is a table with the search results, presenting 5 class sections with identifying information for the class: Section, Days & Times, Room, Instructor, Meeting Dates, Class Co-Requisite, Status, Textbook Savings, and a final column with a button that says "Select." The "Textbook Savings" column is highlighted with a red arrow. In that column, three classes have an orange bubble with an "L", one class has an orange bubble with a "Z", and one class has an orange bubble with an "S."
Figure 20.11: Search results with various textbook savings options: S (Inclusive Access), L (Low Cost Books), Z (Zero Cost Books)
Presents a dialogue box above an orange bubble with a "Z" from the search results table. The box reads: "Zero Cost Book: This course is a Zero Cost Books course. The total cost of required instructional materials in this course is $0."
Figure 20.12: Description for Zero Cost Books (Z) course
Presents a dialogue box above an orange bubble with a "L" from the search results table. The box reads: "Low Cost Book: This course isa Low Cost Books course. The total cost of required instructional materials in this course is less than $40."
Figure 20.13: Description for Low Cost Books course
Presents a dialogue box above an orange bubble with a "Z" from the search results table. The box reads: "Inclusive Access / First Day classes: This class is an HCC Textbooks Savings course. It includes a textbook fee that is lower than national textbook prices. All students will have access to their textbooks online on the first day of class. Students have the option to opt out of this program and receive a reimbursement for the textbook fee when class begins up until the official day of record."
Figure 20.14: Description for S (Inclusive Access) classes


Course tagging has steadily increased as the implementation phases have rolled out because this implementation has coincided with the growth of the overall OER program. Table 21.1 shows the number of sections tagged from inception in Summer 2017 through Fall 2019, with each type of course tag. Note that the total in each column represents the total number of unique sections tagged. Column totals may appear not to add up because Z-Degree sections are tagged with another course tag (first LCB, then ZCB), so either LCB or ZCB also includes Z-Degree sections.

Table 20.1. Number of sections tagged
Summer 2017 Fall 2017 Spring 2018 Summer 2018 Fall 2018 Spring 2019 Summer 2019 Fall 2019
Z-Degree n/a 28 52 21 78 98 49 155
Low-Cost Books 49 114 75 2 121 87 2 128
Zero-Cost Books n/a n/a n/a n/a 117 276 61 250
Total 49 114 75 23 238 363 63 378

Though there is a bit of variability in course tagging, the overall trend indicates an increase in the number of sections tagged as LCB or ZCB. The slight decreases between terms (e.g., from Fall 2017 to Spring 2018) is probably the result of incomplete implementation or natural fluctuations in course offerings (e.g., fewer Composition I courses in the Spring semester) rather than faculty opting out of affordable materials they had previously used. Other metrics indicate that faculty have steadily increased their use of OER and other free resources.

Along those lines, I have noticed a discrepancy between what faculty say about their use of OER in surveys and what is reported in the course tagging. In May 2018, I sent a survey to all full- and part-time faculty (N = 2,101), asking about their use of OER. I received a total of 369 responses, of which 75 indicated they teach a course where all required reading materials are OER. Based on the responses to survey questions, I estimate that 25,560 students should have been in classes with entirely OER materials in the 2017/18 academic year. However, according to actual enrollments for courses tagged as either ZCB or Z-Degree and LCB, only 6,798 students were enrolled in open and affordable courses.

In selected communication with faculty who responded affirmatively to this survey, I discovered that some respondents may have been confused about what OER actually are. Additionally, faculty may have overestimated the number of students enrolled in their courses, thus inflating the survey data. Even accounting for some inflation, a large discrepancy remains between faculty who report using open and free resources and those who have actually tagged their courses as ZCB or LCB. The remainder may be the result of lagging implementation or other variables.

Next Steps

Further improvements focus on internal processes to ensure that we are actually capturing the use of free and reduced-cost resources at HCC. We have developed a counter in PeopleSoft that records every time a student uses the Textbook Savings filter in course searches. As a result, we have information about who is searching for classes using this filter and in which courses they enroll. That information can help us understand whether the message about course tagging is getting out to students and to which students. This information may be helpful for recruitment, course development, and scheduling. With hard data on student searches and selections, we will also be able to test the hypothesis that OER and low-cost course tagging impacts student enrollment, a matter of great interest.


  1. Tagging courses as OER, Low Cost, or Zero  Cost will likely benefit faculty and the college because students are sensitive to price changes in their textbook preferences. By tagging courses as low cost or zero cost, it may be possible to increase enrollment in those sections.
  2. Administrators interested in course tagging ought to design their course tagging system with the students in mind. They should ensure that course tags are visible and intelligible by students. Course tags ought to convey information that is meaningful to students. Additionally, course tagging should be accompanied by a communications plan that provides publicity to the tagging system so that search capabilities and options are widely shared with students.
  3. When designing a course tagging system, ensure that you have representation from the right departments in your design committee. You will need input from advising, enrollment, IT, academic leadership, faculty, and students. All these people need to be at the table.
  4. Administrators of course tagging processes need to be willing to adapt and update given changes to the program and/or new information about student and faculty behavior.
  5. Finally, it is important to have a plan for recording data. You need to know whether the tagging is effective. That means tracking the number of courses tagged and also the usage of the search feature and the enrollment trends in those courses.




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Marking Open and Affordable Courses: Best Practices and Case Studies Copyright © 2020 by Nathan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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